I walked past her room and saw the empty bed. When Beds are truly empty, the sheets are folded neatly, the blankets are tucked in. The bed stood idly in the room with nothing around or near it: no photos, no mugs, no clothes, no stuffed animals, no belongings of any kind. The bed being alone, stark, and lifeless, cried out that which I feared: She is gone.
I walked back toward the Nurse’s station and found Mike, the kind and diligent Nurse to whom I have looked for so many answers about my own Mother.He sat with his back to me at the computer. I braced myself.
“Mike?” I said.
“Yes?” he answered without turning toward me.
“Helen?” I asked.
He turned slowly, and faced me with perfectly measured compassion and control.
“She passed away three weeks ago. She went quickly.”
I was stricken. Then I complained and argued that I had just been there two weeks ago, but hadn’t had time to visit with her. He assured me that she was gone by then. I listened while he explained the circumstances of her sudden decline and her death. I mumbled something about being glad that she went quickly, and left.
I cried all the way home. My daughter kept trying to comfort me with the only words we have for any of this: She’s in a Better Place.
Strange, how very sad I can be about this lady’s passing. We shared little conversations for the past five years as I came each week to visit my Mother in the nursing home. I tried to brighten her day whenever I saw her struggling to push her wheel chair up to the dining room. Sometimes I gave her a push wherever she was headed; sometimes I just stopped to visit while she was eating lunch. Often, because we shared the common ground of having graduated from Portland High School, we sang the Portland High Fight Song together. She had told me she was a cheerleader in those days, so I knew it always brought a smile to her face to sing “Wearers of the Blue” in unison.
I brought her small gifts and little wreaths to trim her doorway during the Xmas seasons. She gave me sweet assurances time and time again that my Mom was, indeed, “doing so well”. It wasn’t true, but I think she wanted me to know that someone else was watching out for my Mom, and that someone else really cared about her. She enjoyed my Mother’s company for years before Parkinson’s Disease, and its accompanying late stage dementia, took away my Mother’s memories, access to the present, and ability to clearly communicate her thoughts.
Helen was intelligent and educated. I felt so sorry that she was physically so compromised while her mind remained intact. The amazing thing was that she did not complain about her condition. Even when she looked so bad it was hard to see her without wincing. Even when her hands were so deformed she could scarcely use them. Even when her head was angled toward her neck permanently. She never complained.
Sometimes you find love and compassion and friendship where you least expect to find it.
I would have bet a great deal of money that I would never have made a friend in the last place I would have looked: a long-term care facility. And, I would have lost that bet. Helen became my friend despite my squeamishness and distaste for the sights and sounds and smells of a nursing home.She became my friend despite my weak stomach and revulsion at human illness and deformity. She became my friend because of her heart and her mind and her soul. She was a beautiful spirit trapped in a sadly decaying physical body.
And, thanks to her kindness and love, I came to see her as someone I loved.
I will miss her, and I will remember how she changed me for the better.